Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 10, Number 9: August 2010


On Social Media and Social Networks

If you’re a Proper Social Media Type, I should give you a tl;dr version (too long, didn’t read), since this Perspective rambles on. Here’s that version:

I no longer believe “Social Media” names anything real—or at least not anything interesting (except to marketers).

That may be overstated but you’ll see what I mean during what’s likely to be my final essay that uses “Social Media” as a key term. Or you can just skip to the next piece—but I hope you won’t, because I think this one could be fun. (Admittedly, if you’re one of those given to tl;dr, you probably won’t even see this, since Cites & Insights is consistently in that category.)

Perhaps I should apologize for a misleading title. This Perspective is almost entirely about “social media” as term, concept and reality. Social networks come into play only in contrast and in the section just below—because I do think social networks (that is, social networking services) are real, interesting and worth discussing. Probably 90% of this Perspective is about “social media.”

Some of you may remember a February 10, 2010 post at Walt at Random, “A Social Network/Social Media Snapshot.” I tried to figure out how and where I was involved with social networks and social media—and even then, I tried to distinguish between the two. Here’s what I said about the two back then:

Ø  A social medium is a publishing medium that encourages direct feedback and interaction–but that typically involves some significant multiple of readers to those providing feedback. I’d put blogs and wikis in this category. (Realistically, lists also belong here. I think Google Reader and Bloglines also do, but aggregators are tricky…)

Ø  A social network is a conversational medium—one that is fundamentally about interaction, not about messages as such. I’d put Twitter, FriendFeed, LinkedIn and others in this category. Ditto Buzz, if Buzz becomes anything other than a botched experiment in opt-out implementation.

Ø  Yes, you can use a social network as a social medium (I’d say that’s the case for any Twitterer with more than 10 times as many followers as follows, or any FriendFeed participant who just feeds in stuff from other sources and never participates in threads.) You can use social media as social networks, sort of, but with considerably more difficulty. (Some wikis might be crude social networks, but not most.)

I’m happy with that definition of social networks. I’m not at all happy with the definition of social media, and it’s clearly not the definition others would use. The more I look at it, the less I believe there is a useful meaning for “social media” (unless you’re a guru or marketeer)—and I would note that the one I used applies equally well to any offline medium that allows, say, letters to the editor.

Social Networks

The term “social networks” does have a useful meaning within the internet, along with its much more complex meaning in real life. Facebook, FriendFeed, LinkedIn, MySpace, Ning, Orkut, Twitter, buzz—these and more all have commonalities that justify a common term. Realistically, these are all social network services, but there’s no getting around the convenient shorthand. What are social network services?

Social networks (social network services) function primarily to exchange comments, relationships and ideas among groups of somehow-related people.

That’s not a pretty definition, but it will do for now. As with almost any definition in the “social” space, it gets fuzzy around the edges. To me, the key point in social network services is that their primary function is exchange among shifting communities, communities that are at least partly self-chosen. (Is email with list support a social network service? I said things get fuzzy around the edges…)

I don’t plan to stop writing about social network services and will probably keep calling them social networks, although that abbreviation has its problems. If you want to understand more about the problem, you could start with Wikipedia’s “Social network” entry—which is all about social structures made up of people and organizations, not the software that serves social networks. I don’t plan to get into the set of philosophical issues surrounding social networks and social network analysis; they’re beyond C&I’s scope (and my tolerance for this sort of deepthink). The Wikipedia article gives me a headache, and I think that’s only partly from reading long text on screen. Let’s assume this is my own shortcoming.

I should note that Wikipedia’s “Social network service” article is pretty good. I find it odd that on the Discussion pages—which I now almost always find more interesting than Wikipedia Article pages—”Social network service” rates a “C” in quality, while the “Social network” page, which I find wholly confounding, gets a “B.”

Fuzzy or not, “social network services” defines a real category of software, one with quite a few issues but also considerable promise. I believe most of us know whether something is or isn’t a social network (at least if “social” is defined broadly enough to include business relationships).

That may be all there is to say about social networks for this particular essay. I don’t believe social networks are social media—but as I’ve already said, I’m no longer satisfied that “social media” defines much of anything.

It’s Web 2.0! It’s Circular!

Consider some definitions of the term. Here’s the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s “Social media” article (as of June 17, 2010 at 10:50 a.m.):

Social media are media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media use web-based technologies to transform and broadcast media monologues into social media dialogues. They support the democratization of knowledge and information and transform people from content consumers to content producers. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.” Businesses also refer to social media as user-generated content (UGC) or consumer-generated media (CGM). Social media utilization is believed to be a driving force in defining the current period as the Attention Age.

The first sentence combines circularity with vapid buzzwords. “Social media are media for social interaction.” Maybe I’m wrong to call that circular. Maybe wrong would be better—at least if you include, say, blogs as social media. (“highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques”—that’s just blather.)

The second sentence is an assertion, not a definition, and I claim that “web-based technologies” is the only meaningful part of the sentence—since traditional media have never been exclusively monologues, since “social” can and should involve multipart conversations, not dialogues, and since whatever these webbie things really are, they don’t “transform and broadcast” traditional media, they extend them. The third sentence violates Wikipedia’s NPOV policy and is mostly wifty platitudes.

Then we get a definition that could be meaningful—but only if “ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0” has meaning, which I do not believe. Even if you do, this boils down to “social media allow for user-generated content.” Which means all media are social media, at least to some extent, since pretty much all content is generated by people, er, users. That’s followed by the claim that businesses refer to social media as user-generated content or its ugly cousin “consumer-generated media” (that’s businesstalk for you: turning people into consumers). Finally, we get a sentence with so many problems I’m not sure where to start: “is believed” by whom? Since when has “the current period” become “the Attention Age” as a consensus term?

That’s just the first paragraph. Here’s the second paragraph:

Social media have been modernized to reach consumers through the internet. Social media have become appealing to big and small businesses. Credible brands are utilizing social media to reach customers and to build or maintain reputation. As social media continue to grow, the ability to reach more consumers globally has also increased. Twitter, for example has expanded its global reach to Japan, Indonesia, and Mexico, among others. This means that brands are now able to advertise in multiple languages and therefore reach a broader range of consumers. Social media have become the new “tool” for effective business marketing and sales. Popular networking sites including Myspace, Facebook and Twitter are social media most commonly used for socialization and connecting friends, relatives, and employees.

I won’t fisk the whole bloody article, tempting as that is. Still…the first sentence here only makes sense if social media predate the internet, in which case they can’t be based on Web 2.0 (or can they?). The rest of the paragraph up to the final sentence is entirely business-oriented, which may be telling: Apparently social media is all about businesses reaching consumers.

It doesn’t get better. I mean, one “common form of social media” listed is “print media, designed to be re-distributed”—as opposed to print media that can’t be passed along, perhaps? The section “Distinction from industrial media” (which seems to equate traditional and “industrial” media) is very nearly incoherent, particularly when the first distinction drawn is stated as a commonality, not a distinction.

I’m not trying to critique Wikipedia here (been there, done that, didn’t get the T-shirt)—but given Wikipedia’s nature and structure, you’d think that—if “social media” had a clear and useful meaning—you’d find it here. Instead, perhaps the clearest part of this article is the box that appears above the text with a big exclamation point:

This article has multiple issues. Please help improve the article or discuss these issues on the talk page.

* It needs additional references or sources for verification. Tagged since September 2009.

* It reads like a personal reflection or essay. Tagged since September 2009.

“Multiple issues” is putting it mildly. The Discussion page is interesting (and long—nearly seven times as long as the article) but not that helpful. I rather like one earlier definition of social media, which uses the term twice and then, in the third sentence, jumps to “Popular social mediums include…” So social media consists of a bunch of social mediums? Notably, the person citing that definition says that it “pretty much describes the majority of the Web today.” I am reminded once again that Wikipedia’s editors regard the crappiest book as a more reliable source than the best blog—which, by extension, means that the worst published reference work should be regarded as more reliable than the best of Wikipedia.

Perhaps the best proposed definition in that Discussion page comes from “Mystalic” on August 9, 2008:

Social Media is the use of electronic and Internet tools for the purpose of sharing and discussing information and experiences with other human beings.

Anyone here see the problem with that definition? Hands? OK—by that definition, any medium is part of social media as long as it involves electronics. Which, in today’s world, means all media except, possibly, sculpture, painting and ballet are social media. Even if you drop “electronic,” what you have is an equation:

Social media = Net media.

That is: Any medium on the internet is social media. Do you buy that?

Should I stop here? If Wikipedia can’t define it, maybe it doesn’t exist?

Nah. That would be too easy…


Which media are social media?

Blogs? Lots of worthwhile blogs don’t accept comments. In what way can those be called social?

Yelp and its ilk? Lots of user-generated reviews (and a fair number of sock-puppet reviews)—but little real conversation. I’m not sure what’s particularly social about these sites and I’m not sure they’re really media.

Facebook, Twitter and FriendFeed? Definitely conversational, most assuredly social—but they’re quintessentially network support services—broadly, “social networks,” not media as such.

Email? Let’s not go there, shall we? Nothing “Web 2.0” about email, and although lists can support multiway conversations, regular email is neither a medium nor specifically social.

Slashdot, LISNews and the like? Perhaps.

Wikis? Collaborative, ideally. Media, probably. Social? I’m not sure that’s a significant word. Some might be, some aren’t.

The daily newspaper I take, which has staff who understand tech stuff very well, used “blogs and social networks” in lieu of “social media” when discussing a recent poll about online participation and involvement. I think the newspaper got it right.

Can we find worthwhile definitions and cases on the web?

Dipping into the search engine flood

Bing returns 178 million results for the words social media and 338 million results for the phrase “social media.” (Ya gotta’ love Microsoft’s amusing new attitude toward the nature of large results—”hey, narrow the search and you can get twice the results!”) Since neither number means anything, let’s just look at the first 20:

After the ubiquitous Wikipedia we get—which “turns standard ad units into social experiences.” Then we get, a blog on “the business of social media and the social Web” that “can help your company become a social business.” (Emphasis added.) #4 is from Freebase, a copy of the Wikipedia article. And a page on wikinvest (yes, another business site) that “describes a concept that could impact a variety of companies, countries or industries” and starts with an interesting definition: “Social media describes websites that allow users to share content, media, etc.” Gone: Any sense of discussion or conversation. This seems to describe any website with any facilities for “user” content—in other words, pretty much everything. (The article also calls Myspace “the most-viewed website in the world,” so it may be a trifle dated.) Three of the first five seem to say it’s all about business.

What of the next five? “How social media is changing franchising.” Social Media Today, a “moderated business community for the web’s best thinkers on Social Media and Web 2.0.” That’s the best of the best—moderated (after all, open discussion is dangerous), business, self-referential and with the critical Web 2.0 connection. “Can IT suppliers industrialise social media?” Alltop, a “news” aggregation site (noting that all the top items seem to be business-related). The Social Media Business Council, a “brands-only community focused on helping large organizations build successful social media programs.” Getting the picture? At this point, a plausible definition might be “Social media is a set of methodologies for businesses to co-opt citizen involvement while appearing user-oriented.” Yes, that’s unfair. Or is it?

Let’s try five more: Social Media Explorer—the home and blog of a consultant working with companies. He’s honest enough to admit that he’s a PR professional. “Talk to Qwest—Qwest’s social media portal.” A mashable list of “essential social media resources you may have missed”—and that one’s too confusing to describe. “Social Media News,” another blog from a dot-com that’s all about the advertising. And one of those “plain English” CommonCraft videos, more than two years old, that seems to say ratings and cheap production are what social media is all about.

Discouraged yet? After that, we get a “social media marketing industry report,” a “social media slides eBook” (a brief set of slides that includes its own either useless or wrong definitions and is otherwise MOM—Mostly About Marketing), a BusinessWeek article “Social media will change your business,” an online marketing blog—and a Forbes article that, in attempting to distinguish between social media and social networking, muddies the water even further.

What I do get from this dismal succession (trust me, it doesn’t get better as you go down further): It’s all about the money. I’m enough of a Pollyanna to believe that’s wrong.

Better luck with Google? Well, the words yield 826 million results (setting a new standard for meaningless size) and the phrase yields a mere 53 million. It’s hard to even figure out the first five (etc.) links in Google’s new interface, given the mix of news, images, videos and results from “people in your social circle,” but as I go through the first couple dozen results, I see very little new or less business-oriented—with one odd exception: the Center for Social Media, an American University School of Communications operation that “showcases and analyzes media for public knowledge and action—media made by, for, and with publics to address the problems that they share.” It’s about documentaries and other “socially engaged media-making.” This one turns “social media” on its head: It’s not about conversational media, it’s about media with social purposes.

It’s either nonexistent or ubiquitous

In the end, I conclude one of two things—or maybe both:

All media are social media to one degree or another, perhaps more directly for web-based media than for others.

Social media is a marketing term that doesn’t describe anything distinctive.

It’s almost as useful a term as Web 2.0, which is to say it’s worth a lot more to marketers, consultants, speakers and gurus than it is to worthwhile discussion of real-world issues.

I would say, “I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it,” but spinach has a lot more going for it than “social media” does. And that’s the end of the Perspective as such.

Notes from the Literature

The rest of this is some old fashioned pointing-and-discussing, taking a couple dozen items* related to social media and commenting on them—otherwise known as “clearing out my socialmedia tag on delicious.” Order is, as usual, mostly chronological. Overall meaning? That’s up to you.

Opinion Spectrum Collapse Disorder

That’s Jason Scott at ASCII (, posted March 15, 2009. As a sometimes computer historian/archivist, Scott looks back at what’s happened—in this case, looking at the “past 20 years or so” and “watching theoretical situations become hard reality, and then that hard reality encountering problems that the theoretical situations never even dreamed of.” He notes changes in online access to newspaper stories—and some of the unexpected consequences,

like print newspapers collapsing, always-there inherent flaws in journalism being ripped apart, and low-cost aggregators that once were thought to be moneymaking opportunities in the “smart agent” space that are now so beneath economic contempt that you wouldn’t get three sentences in with your business plan before you found yourself on the curb, watching a truck hauling away empty newspaper vending machines.

There are other flies in the ointment—”problems we are totally unprepared for and situations we’re not even getting a full grasp around.” For example, the title of this post—OSCD. He notes a 1984 textfile captured from a BBS, The Safehouse—a new discussion board that began like this:

Welcome to the Debate Den!

The Den is for debate and discussion on almost any topic you wish...

This room is especially for political discussion, since this is an election year...

Go ahead.. post!

Scott’s reaction—and, in 2010, it’s hard to argue that he’s wrong:

Could you imagine? Can you even think, in this modern day, both starting a political discussion on purpose, or, for that matter, writing such a happy go lucky invitation for debate? As if you were seeking it out? Like plastic or internet access, a once rare thing is now so common that its mere existence is not a miracle, and in fact has degraded to an air-like status: it’s just there, and sometimes it is choking.

Although it was online, the 1984 board didn’t move at the speed of today’s social web. He lists the timestamps for postings—25 of them over a period of five weeks on a “very popular BBS by 1984 standards.” The “hottest” day had four messages.

In this environment, everything tends to run cool, although flamewars are definitely possible. But a flamewar then [was] usually a small number of folks dropping into well-worn melees.

Scott compares this—and higher-frequency postings on Fidonet—with “the modern day.” He uses Fark and Something Awful as examples, but you could look at Slashdot or HuffPost or…well, lots of places. A discussion can begin with a highly specific point or event and “can instantly expand into a multiple-hundreds-of-participants orgy of linguistic violence.” That doesn’t always happen, and it doesn’t happen as often on narrowly-defined sites, but it does happen.

As the accessibility of a conversation increases, so too does the spectrum of opinion brought to that conversation, until the opinions range along such a wide spectrum that the conversation simply cannot move forward. It will continue to grow, but like a tumor it is useless and for all purposes dead. It will not better anyone involved in it. The conversation has collapsed from the width of the spectrum of opinion.

Overstated? Possibly—Scott’s fond of overstatement. Wrong? Not so much. I spent a few minutes at Fark looking at some comment sets. One story (on a new director for “dialogue on science, ethics and religion” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science) from Inside Higher Education had, in its first day, 13 comments at IHE—comments representing strongly diverging perspectives but, in most cases, civilized wording and careful thought. (It’s perhaps unfortunate that the rudest and most divisive comments come from hard-core atheists.) Then there’s Fark: 345 comments in the first 10 hours, beginning with a sophisticated argument presented here in its entirety:

People who believe religion and science are compatible are farking retards.

Some of the comments—hell, most of the comments—are a little longer and sometimes more complex. Still, even when commenters seem to be responding to one another, it’s frequently an “I’m right.” “No, you’re wrong.” “You’re an idiot.” set of monologues being hurled past one another—not a conversation. (No, I didn’t read all 345 comments.)

That was in the “geek” section. How about politics? Here’s a same-day story from The Daily Kos—admittedly not an impartial source—about Congressfolk at a hearing with the BP CEO that tried to shift the blame for the oil spill to the government. Specifically, Joe Barton said he’s ashamed of the government for a “$20 billion shakedown” (the escrow account)—he literally apologized because BP was pressured to make things right instead of waiting for a series of criminal trials. (Yes, he used the word “apologize.”) In this case, given the site, you get fast-action commenting both at the site itself and at Fark: what looks like 441 comments in eight hours at Daily Kos, more than 500 in the first 12 hours at Fark. In the first case, while I could hardly call the commentary enlightening, it’s reasonably convergent (for a while at least) because of the general audience involved and the extremity of the story. Fark? The level of interpersonal insults and pointless swearing in the comments was so high that it was difficult to discern any actual conversation or discussion—but as soon as the right-wingers in the group came out to play, it became shots fired in all directions.

After being reminded of why I stay away from sites like this, I tried Something Awful—with its 2.9 million threads and 104 million posts. And, frankly, there I think Scott’s simply offbase. Something Awful appears intended for extreme discussion—I mean, the thread on this same absurd apology appears under “General Bullshit.” And it actually had somewhat more rational discussions than at Fark, albeit intermixed with a lot of oddness.

Do web conversations inherently collapse in OSCD? Clearly not. Is there such a tendency on more popular sites? Yes, I think there is.

The Wisdom of Community

Derek Powazek published this essay on May 5, 2009 at A List Apart, discussing the “Wisdom of Crowds” theory. He thinks it’s important and valid, and offers tips for making a “WOC site” work properly—that is, actually yield improved conclusions through group participation.

What’s clear from this article, though, is that WOC systems are not social media—they’re about voting, not conversing. The article points out one fundamental issue with most social systems—the likelihood that any network with more than 150 people will start to fall apart. “Discussion systems and chat rooms fall apart when too many voices get involved”—but WOC systems are supposed to improve as they get larger.

One interesting point about this article: There are very few cogent, non-spammy comments—astonishingly few for a high-visibility site (GPR 8!) and an article that’s been there more than a year. (Determining which comments are link spam is difficult, but I couldn’t spot more than half a dozen legitimate comments with useful new opinions or ideas expressed in clear English.)

What happens when you cross the streams?

Christina Pikas asks that question in a May 15, 2009 post at Christina’s LIS Rant. She’s looking at “norms in online communities, how journal commenting is different, and waving the flag on potential issues when aggregating web comments with journal articles.”

Groups do develop norms, whether those groups are real or virtual.

These norms might include when and what to link to, how rowdy or polite to be, and what topics are appropriate. Some discussion forums are supportive and helpful and warm, comfortable places to be whereas others are full of insults and ribbing and out and out flame wars—that’s the norm, though, so people go there for that. Newbies generally lurk (hang out without posting) for some period of time before commenting on posts, and then initiating threads… [U]sually, except for the first few people who have to sort of blaze a trail, people learn how to interact in a new communication forum by watching and then dipping their toes into the water. And the first few people may be using the tool in a completely unexpected way (or at least many people aren’t reporting what they’re doing right now on twitter).

Tools influence the norms, to be sure. Your blog is “sort of your own little home” and the norms for comments at your blog will reflect both “blogging norms” and your own attitude—if you allow comments at all. Meanwhile, Twitter has norms, various groups within Flickr have norms for comments (I think), and so on…

Crossing the streams? Pikas notes FriendFeed, which draws from multiple sources and, as a result, mixes multiple norms. Perhaps surprisingly, this has not been particularly problematic:

It turns out that instead of this causing a whole lot of confusion, hurt feelings, and people acting inappropriately (for the most part), it’s caused the formation of new norms and ways of doing things—because we’re all pretty adaptable, and it’s basically the same people, with the same user ids, and because we know that people label delicious things differently for themselves than to share, for example.

The conclusion is that it should be fine for journals to aggregate comments on papers from all public sources and provide them as commentary and context. But in this case, Pikas isn’t so confident:

However, the norms when people comment directly on the journal site are quite different. People think through their comments more. People are sometimes forced to use their real names (the names on their drivers licenses). There is probably more civility because these people might be the reviewers of your next paper!

Whereas off-the-cuff comments can be, well, off the cuff and probably rowdier and less carefully considered. Pikas’ solution: Offer a way for people to opt in—to say “yes, this casual comment can be aggregated into direct journal comment streams.”

This is a more specialized discussion but worth considering. What I would say about Friendfeed’s apparent ability to cross streams without undue angst: First, Friendfeed—like most social networks—consists of many overlapping networks, most of them not enormous. Second—well, I’ve been seeing plenty of angst and fireworks on some Friendfeed conversations, and some of the time it is because of unclear norms.

10 Golden Rules of Social Media

Here’s one (by Aliza Sherman on May 26, 2009 at WebWorkerDaily) that pushes three buttons in one short phrase: It’s a List Post, it posits a set of Rules and it claims to be about a field whose existence I question.

You know how List Posts work, so here are the “rules” without the glosses: Respect the Spirit of the ‘Net (which she claims is not about marketing and selling!), Listen, Add Value, Respond, Do Good Things, Share the Wealth, Give Kudos, Don’t Spam, Be Real, Collaborate.

All good stuff—and all applicable to almost any setting, online or off. Well, why not? The post ends “We are social media.” But as you read, you realize that Sherman’s a web consultant to companies and get that fringe sense of what’s not quite being said. The tenth point, Collaborate, begins as follows: “Before you dive into social media for marketing and selling…” Whoops. This really isn’t about conversations among people—it’s about using “social media” to sell stuff. In other words, same old, same old, with pretty words on top.

Report: Social Networks Growing while Other Social Media Sites Stagnate and Decline

This item—by Sarah Perez, on ReadWriteWeb July 29, 2009—is interesting mostly to see whether it provides a useful, meaningful definition of “social media.” It’s based on a Universal McCann survey of internet use—and as far as I can tell, the report includes anything that can have any sort of user-generated content. It appears that online radio streaming even counts—which stretches the definition beyond repair.

Conclusion? Everything online is social media, or at least everything except pure feedback-free corporate sites—which makes the term meaningless except for marketers.

The coming trust crisis in the social media expert space

Duncan Riley, August 31, 2009, The Inquisitr. Maybe the first paragraph says it all:

I had the privilege of attending my second Gnomedex two weeks ago and there was a regularly used joke: everyone claims to be a “social media expert” just because they’ve used Twitter.

Or, he goes on, started a blog “or at the extreme, have a Facebook account.” Why? Because the supposed proliferation of “social media” has resulted in a proliferation of conferences and speaking gigs—and it’s not easy to tell who really is a social media expert. (When the term is fuzzy or meaningless, expertise is hard to define.) This will lead to a “trust crisis” as more and more speakers and gurus don’t know much of anything.

Riley believes the crisis will come both from the bottom—all those fools who proclaim expertise—but also from the top (as “gurus of old media” try to reinvent themselves). And, apparently, there are so many conferences and speaking gigs that we’re now getting “those who can talk the talk, but have never walked the walk.” You can be a full-time speaker, which of course means that you’re not actually doing much. (Thinking about library conferences and speakers who appear to be speaking all the time…nahh, we couldn’t possibly have anything like that, could we?)

The problem here is that in many cases the implied trust is flawed: the audience expects to hear true experts, but that trust only extends as far as the audience’s knowledge level; once you get more knowledgeable audiences, those not really qualified to talk will be caught out. As a fundamental, that has to undermine trust, and once that stretches out across many, the whole sector suffers a trust crisis that even those qualified may be caught up by.

Riley doesn’t have a solution. To me, part of the solution is to move away from a term so nebulous it invites bullshitters.

There’s a followup essay, “The Social Media Expert Crisis Descends,” written March 9, 2010. Riley—who’s mostly in Australia—says “the crisis is here.” In November 2009, he attended a conference and saw “speaker after speaker” essentially say they’d been on Twitter for a while and this was how it worked for them. “Apparently being on Twitter for 5 minutes gave these people the license to speak for 5-25 minutes on being a social media expert.”

Ah, but by March 2010, it had become much worse—”like an outbreak of the plague, particularly among the PR/Marketing crowd.” “If you’ve gotten 200 followers for your corporate Twitter account in Sydney, and sent out 20 tweets, that’s now ample qualification that you are a social media expert.” Riley’s concerned not only because the preachers mostly haven’t done much but because “the advice given now isn’t just shallow, it’s bad. Not just bad, but damaging.”

Oh, by the way: Who’s paying for all this advice? Companies. Which want to be involved in multiway person-to-person conversations why? To sell stuff. So the flood of opportunities for speakers and consulting gigs is…well, you know the answer by now. “To enhance personal growth through effective communication” is not the answer.

5 Signs You’re Talking To A Social Media Douchebag/5 Terms Social Media Douchebags Should Stop Using

Two pieces, both on Tremendous News, the first posted January 19, 2010, the second six days later. I don’t know who the writer is; I’m not entirely sure I care. We’ll call him or her “TN” for now.

To many, the Internet is a world full of promise.

To others, a ripe field ready to be harvested by douchebags.

Both are true.

Yep. TN even offers a definition of “douchebag”: “Someone who thinks he’s better than others.” Although there’s more to it than that. He sees these folks flooding social media. The five signs?

Nobody knows what they actually do. You get answers like “I leverage insights” and “I put brands at the forefront of the social media revolution.”

They actually think they’re internet celebrities. I suspect there’s way too much truth in that. “If you have to preface the word with ‘Internet,’ you’re no celebrity.”

They will speak at any event. (Hmm. I’m starting to see library connections, but never mind.)

They recommend their friends who are, coincidentally, also douchebags.

They always need to “rate a brand.” You need to read this one to see what’s being said.

TN also notes: “Many people think I’m a douchebag.” And doesn’t deny the possibility.

The 79 comments are interesting—including one who, attempting to be funny, managed to exhibit a “6th sign”: Not reading the entire article and then commenting as if you did. Oh, but hey, the post was 676 words long, mostly in short sentence-paragraphs. Admittedly, the item the commenter didn’t read was in boldface, but it wasn’t in the first 100 words. (What’s the attention span of a social media douchebag? 140 characters? 140 words?) One great comment: “So, are you going to offer to speak about this at every SM event in 2010?” (With emoticon, to be sure.)

In the followup post, TN says social media douchebags “used social media to attack me.” They called TN pretentious, said TN didn’t get it, said TN was out of touch. That was no surprise. What did surprise TN: dozens of “the exact same people I was talking about” agreed with him. So he had to up the ante by offering the lexicon: “If you use any of these terms regularly, you’re the person I’m talking about.” Here they are, with no further explanation (go read the post: it’s funny).

Participate in the conversation. Monetize your social media presence. Social media rockstar. You’re doing it wrong. Social media is all about…

Fill in that ellipsis with any convenient word or brief phrase—e.g., engaging, interacting, community building, ROI, buzz, conversation.

If you use some of these phrases, sometimes, don’t worry.

I’m not talking about you.

If you have these phrases on slides in a presentation you’re about to deliver at a “podcamp”, then yes.

I’m talking about you.

Still not seeing any relationship to anybody in the library field or any pat terminology or anything, nope, not here, not at all.

The most amusing portion of the 63 comments was an interchange in which a person who Actually Works in Social Media, defending the use of some of the buzzwords, managed to demonstrate that he was one of those being talked about…and will clearly never admit it to himself or anyone else.

In the Future We’ll All Have Online Reputation Scores

That’s Hutch Carpenter in a January 26, 2010 post at I’m Not Actually a Geek (an oxymoronic blog title)—and maybe the title is enough, perhaps with “to go with our flying cars and jetpacks” added. Going to the About page, I find that Carpenter is “VP of Product” for a company that helps other companies “manage innovation”:

The goal is to enable easy capture of ideas by employees, customers and partners, and convert the most promising to innovative initiatives.

Um. Yeah. OK. Meantime, Carpenter—who makes a point of saying this happened in an interview—predicts that:

[I]n 20 years, we’ll all have online reputation scores. Little badges, numbers that communicate our level of authority, this sort of thing. And these reputations will have tangible impact.

He’s now used “we’ll all” twice, with “all” notably added, so I have to assume that he honestly believes this applies to everybody. Not only are we all going to be online, we’ll all have little badges to show how authoritative we are. Can I get an Amen?

Why does he make this odd (and, to my mind, dystopian) prediction? Because of “three trends pointing to the emergence of online reputation”—”Rely on social media for info,” “Migration of transparent work & info online,” and “Rate performance of business (Amazon, eBay, Yelp).” There’s even a big graph with three arrows and a timeline that clearly shows…nothing at all. But it’s pretty.

So he adds helpful explanations. Carpenter is one of those who trusts business ratings—he’ll pay a premium for high positive ratings and assumes most of us will go to restaurants with high Yelp ratings. “The rating ethos” is expanding. We’re rating everything! Carpenter seems to think all these anonymous ratings are as valuable as actually doing online research or asking friends and people we know.

The “migration” phrase is so fuzzy on its own—”transparent work”?—that I shouldn’t be surprised “lifestyle” and gengen show up right away, along with a leap of logic: Young folks supposedly have more and more media exposure over time, and therefore they’re “more accustomed to online engagement and information-seeking.” Well, sure, if most of that media isn’t TV, music and the like. I read the rest of the explanation, and damned if I can make sense of it. I guess I’m doing it wrong.

“Rely on social media…” is nice because Carpenter gets a chance to dismiss all the irrelevant crap of yesterday: “Remember libraries, magazines and microfiche?” Not only are libraries irrelevant, they’re irrelevant by multiple generations—superseded first by “1.0 websites where we got information” then by “portals that aggregated information” and then by search. Now, you see, all of that is irrelevant: Social media is where you go to find “information.” There’s another graph for proof—one that reflects an absolute determination to twist numbers to prove Carpenter’s thesis.

A survey asked what type of website you’d use first when looking for information—thus immediately dismissing all offline sources. The results? 37% said search engines; 34% portals; 11% sites dedicated to the type of information; 9% Wikipedia; 5% blogs; 4% “Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.”

You might say “Well, that’s 9% ‘social media’ if you include social networks as social media.” Ah, but not so fast: Carpenter includes Wikipedia as social media. That’s still only 18%, but, you know, it’s a trend (with one datapoint), so it “points toward an increased reliance on others to provide information to us.”

Somehow, all this leads to “the development of formal, online reputations.” In the process, Carpenter makes it clear once again that this is universal: That social media will be “the only way we will get information. Or make decisions.” Wow.

He never does get to an explanation of how you could plausibly have formal “reputation badges” that weren’t readily gamed. Apparently one PR firm has developed a tool that allows it to identify “the top analysts on Twitter,” so this is heavily about PR talking to PR about how to make PR work better as PR.

Carpenter avoids the trap of stupid futurism by setting this nonsense 20 years out, making it wildly unlikely that anyone will call him on it. Call him on excessive generalization and other nonsense? That doesn’t require such a wait. It is reassuring to know that social media is the final movement, that nothing else will supplant it. At least not for the next two decades.

The comments? High-fiving from other social media folk, some spam, and one person who asks “Wikipedia is social media?”—which Carpenter doesn’t bother responding to. Actually, of course, it is—because “social media” is like fairy dust and can be whatever you want it to be. Let’s just call search engines and portals social media, why don’t we?

All that user-generated content? 95% is malware, spam

Chris Foresman on February 8, 2010 at Ars Technica, based on “research from Websense Security Labs.” Websense—in the business of limiting access to all that threatening stuff—claims to “scan and analyze over 40 billion websites every hour.” The company claims an increase of 225% in malicious websites in the latter half of 2009—but also says, well, what it says in the title. “Websense analysis revealed that 95 percent of all user-generated content is spam, malware, or both.” Specifically, 85% of all email is spam—and 81% “also contains links to malicious software.”

Even if the claims have solid numbers behind them, the term “user-generated content” is misapplied—since virtually all of that spam and malware comes not from users but from companies (of sorts), spammers who do this for a living. In other words, “social media” has largely turned into antisocial crap if you believe Websense.

The last paragraph of the piece is sad and a little odd for Ars Technica:

Savvy users who maintain constant vigilance may not have too much trouble spotting attempts to hijack legitimate content. Ultimately, however, the increases in malicious websites or content that appear to be legitimate simply make it harder and harder for the average person to know who, or what, to trust online. And when just five percent of user-generated content isn’t spam or malware, many may question the utility of bothering to discern a difference.

There aren’t many comments but there’s a healthy level of distrust for the claims. As one commenter points out, most spam email is automatically rejected. Others point out all the abandoned blogs and parking sites that are open to huge quantities of spam and malware—but that nobody visits.


*I started out with 30 items. I found myself discarding some along the way, seeing nothing that on second viewing seems worth noting or discussing. I ended up discussing nine of the “couple dozen items”—and I find that meaningful.

What I don’t find meaningful at this point: “Social media.” I may be doing it wrong, or maybe I just don’t get it, or I need to get over it.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 10, Number 9, Whole Issue 132, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford.

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